Hans Rickheit’s “THE SQUIRREL MACHINE” (Comic Review)
Cartoonist Hans Rickheit is somewhat of a mystery within the world of graphic novels. Elusive, unmistakably iconoclastic and producing works that obey their own, macabre, free-flowing logic, he has become better known for his web comics ECTOPIARY and COCHLEA & EUSTACHIA, as well as his 2001 graphic novel CHLOE.
Defined as an obscurantist for his propensity to create dense, impenetrable work, Hans Rickheit does what he seems to do best with THE SQUIRREL MACHINE – his longest, perhaps most widely read project to date, finally reoffered in an affordable, soft cover format from the ever-excellent publisher Fantagraphics. Love it or hate it, it seems like a lot of Rickheit’s craft relies on mystifying the reader, whether by withholding information, leaving a lot to the imagination, or throwing us off guard with addendums, as he does here with a dense and somewhat confounding poem as preface, immediately followed by an equally oddball “Suggestion for the Teachers” section. It is classic Gothic-styled layering, and while it works as added food for thought (why position the work as faux-academic? what is the relation of this poet to the story?), it doesn’t quite add up by the end of the comic… which is more impressive on its own than these subtextual tactics might lead to believe.
Telling the accelerated, strange life story of inventor brothers Edmund and William Torpor, THE SQUIRREL MACHINE is set in an alternate reality; a somewhat steam-punkified 19th century New England town of beautiful houses contrasted by surrounding woods hiding a feral “pig lady.” Living with their widowed mother, both brothers are gifted inventors, making musical instruments out of animal carcasses at first, then growing up to be far more ambitious; toying with life, death, sex and desire with every interlocking machine. As the book progresses, Rickheit’s mechanical creations eventually eclipse all pretense of narrative, taking us further into his nuts-and-bolts brand of body horror, all of which is truly beautiful to look at. As the narrative eludes, one gets a sense THE SQUIRREL MACHINE is, for him as much as for his two protagonists, a mere excuse: a playground for inventions, a metaphor for the mind expanding in all directions. As the Torpor brothers grow older, they modify their mother’s house, unbeknownst to her, creating an impossible labyrinth of inventions. One isn’t supposed to wonder at the feasibility of Rickheit’s architecture, but rather bask in its complexity and macabre quality.
It becomes clear, reading THE SQUIRREL MACHINE that Rickheit’s strengths as a cartoonist lie less in narrative, and more in his ability to create a fantastical world of uncertainty; a unique aesthetic blending the organic and the mechanical. His perspective work is stunning, precise while his simpler, looser character work – which isn’t the show-stopper, here, you’ll understand – nonetheless reminds of the great work of Terry Moore (STRANGERS IN PARADISE, ECHO and the recent horror series RACHEL RISING), lensed by way of a Victorian-era Burns or Giger. Perhaps too stiffly inked for its own good, Rickheit’s work isn’t one of dynamic compositions, and realistic, expressive visages, but the manically detailed atmosphere and scenery Rickheit invokes–the woods, the house, the technology that the two brothers evolve in, and so on–are fascinating in their own right.
In THE SQUIRREL MACHINE, the background constantly threatens to engulf the foreground, until it does and its story becomes less about the brothers and more about the insane devices they have created, which lead them to their respective doom. If beautifully structured and illustrated, it isn’t a graphic novel one goes to for narrative, but rather for images to fuel nightmares. Not quite enough for this reviewer, but it might just be what you are looking for.